Nostalgia & the healing impulse within our fascinations

Nostalgia, once thought of as a brain disease, is actually a healing neurological mechanism elicited in times of distress.

– description of The benefits of being nostalgic, a BBC mini-documentary

My assumption is that when our mind is fascinated by something that may seem meaningless, frivolous, or frustrating, there is a healing impulse within it.

The healing impulse within nostalgia

Nostalgia can help us digest and come to terms with the past, learn about ourselves (what we enjoy), and make changes in our life now – either to bring in more of what we enjoy or let go of something that doesn’t serve us.

It all depends on how we relate to it. Do we get bogged down by the nostalgia? Stuck in longing for what was and no longer is? Unhappy about our current life? Caught up in remorse? If so, and if we don’t allow the process to continue and find healing, it’s not so helpful. (I assume that’s why John Hodgman likes to call nostalgia a “toxic impulse”.)

We can also support the healing impulse within nostalgia. We can use it to come to terms with the past. Identify what we enjoy and what makes us come alive, and find ways to bring it into our life now. We can identify what’s in our current life that’s not aligned with what’s important to us and find ways to reduce or eliminate it.

I am sometimes nostalgic about my time at Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake City. What about that time did I enjoy? It was the climate, nature, daily meditation, and an international community of people with similar interests and orientations as me. How can I bring more of that into my life? I am out in nature when I can. I do spiritual practices, although not communally. I have an international community of like-minded friends, although it’s mostly virtual. And the climate where I am is not so good for me. I am planning to move to a warmer, sunnier, and drier climate, which I know is what helps my health the most. In this place, it’s possible I’ll be able to bring in more of nature, communal practice, and an international community.

What’s the healing impulse in other – sometimes unwanted – fascinations?

What else is our mind fascinated by that may, on the surface, not seem so helpful?

We can be worried about the future. Annoyed by something in the present. Reliving past traumatic experiences. Obsessed by something we would rather not be so focused on. And so on.

In these cases, the mind is drawn to a place where it’s stuck. It’s caught up in stressful beliefs and unhealed emotional issues.

As with nostalgia, if the process stops there, it’s not necessarily so helpful. Then we just get the unpleasantness of it without the resolution and healing.

So how can we support the healing process?

In general, by asking: What needs healing? And how can we support that healing?

And if it’s me…. Identify the stressful beliefs and assumptions behind it and question these. Identify any emotional issue behind it and invite in healing for it. Shift in how I relate to the trigger and what’s triggered in us, for instance through dialog (parts work, subpersonalities) or heart-centered practices.

If I am annoyed by noise from my neighbor, it points to something unhealed and examined in me. I can find thoughts like: He should be more considerate. He shouldn’t use noisy machines. He should have a wild garden instead of a sterile manicured one. I cannot find peace. I can then examine each of these, for instance using The Work of Byron Katie. I can also identify triggered identities – perhaps “sensitive” and “considerate” – and examine these, for instance using Living Inquiries.

If my mind goes to worries about the future or stressful events in the past, I can identify beliefs and identities and inquire into them. I can identify emotional issues and invite in healing for them in whatever way works for me. I can find the parts of me that are triggered and dialog with these. I can use heart-centered practices to shift my relationship with the trigger (now, in the past, or in the imagined future) and what’s triggered in me.

Why is the mind drawn by what needs resolution or healing?

I suspect this is a built-in mechanism that came through evolution. The ones whose mind was drawn to what needed resolution were more likely to find this resolution, and they functioned better as human beings and were more likely to successfully bring up children, grandchildren, and children in the larger family – all of whom may have shared this trait. They were also more likely to contribute to the success of the tribe or community which included people who shared this trait.

At a micro-level, the mind is drawn to what needs resolution through creating a charge. The mind associates certain thoughts (connected with what’s unresolved) with certain sensations, and the thoughts give meaning to the sensations and the sensations give a sense of charge, substance, and reality to the thoughts.

The gifts in frustrating fascinations

So there is a gift in apparently meaningless, frivolous, or frustrating fascinations.

On the surface, they can seem useless or uncomfortable, and if the mind gets stuck in them, it can be unhealthy or unhelpful.

And yet, if we join in with the impulse and examine it, we may find something of great value.

We may find healing, clarity, insights, and an opportunity to mature.

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